Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield
Patty Takeda moves in with her mother for the two weeks before her wedding. On the third day in her old room, she’s woken by the sound of the doorbell, and is alarmed to hear her mother Lucy use the word “Inspector.”
Just a few blocks away, Reg Forrest is dead. Inspector Torre has questions for Lucy, who insists she hasn’t seen Forrest in 35 years; he was a mere acquaintance when Lucy and her mother Miyako were locked away in Manzanar during World War II. But Torre says several eyewitnesses recognized Lucy in the vicinity at the approximate time of death. While an Asian woman in San Francisco would not be an uncommon sight, Lucy is especially memorable, given certain … physical characteristics.
Patty won’t believe her mother is a murderer, but she doubts her mother is telling the whole truth. In the 10 days left until her nuptials, Patty discovers a multi-generational family history she never knew. Thirty-five years earlier, Lucy was a typical teenager in 1941 Los Angeles, the only daughter of a successful Japanese American immigrant business owner and his elegant young wife. Their lives are shattered with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the resulting anti-Japanese onslaught. Too soon, Lucy and Miyako are sent to Manzanar where Miyako’s surreal beauty – and her widowed state – makes mother and daughter victims of unchallenged abuses of white male power. Survival comes at an unfathomable price. [Quick digression: did the book cover artist not read the book or even glance at a description? It’s poignant and pretty enough, but Lucy was 14 when she enters Manzanar, and at no point does the novel even mention a preschool daughter.]
In an interview included at book’s end, bestselling author Sophie Littlefield speaks about the novel’s genesis (“I found this chapter of our nation’s history engrossing and horrifying, so I started thinking about how to explore it through fiction”), her research (“I knew I had a daunting research challenge ahead of me,” which included even a visit to Manzanar), and her “concern” about writing authentically from a background not her own. Littlefield’s sensitivity is clear in recreating the vindictive anti-Asian responses to Pearl Harbor, the appalling living conditions at Manzanar, the disintegration of family ties, the racism-charged post-war experiences beyond camp, and more. As a thriller, her plotting is tensely immersive, and the ending twist is quite a rewarding shocker.
That said [spoiler alert!], the depiction of sexual abuse of Japanese American women prisoners by white officials at Manzanar is profoundly disturbing: a New York businessman arrives to set up a business at Manzanar and stays for “months” during which he continuously preys on female internees, including not only choosing a favorite to repeatedly rape but then threatens her underage daughter as well; the “motor pool office” turns into a boozy brothel atmosphere after hours with uncontrolled access between women prisoners and male staff; camp officials enable and participate in sexual abuse (including the repeated homosexual rape of a minor), or turn a blind eye. Too much seemed unbelievable, so I went straight to the founding former director of the Smithsonian APA Center (who is also one of the leading Japanese American historians) who connected me directly to the Chief of Interpretation at Manzanar who in turn contacted the actual Manzanar ranger with whom Littlefield spoke.
The ranger confirms “so many misinterpretations” in the book, including “the bizarre ugliness [Littlefield] conceived of among the white personnel.” The Chief of Interpretation concurs: “There is no documentation of any accusations of abuse along the lines she writes.” She adds, “Because the author fictionalizes real staff positions, I worry that some may think her characterizations are true of the actual people who held those positions. They’re not.” She offers alternative texts instead, including Reflecting on WWII, Manzanar, and the WRA by Arthur L. Williams, the son of the assistant chief of Internal Police, which “provides extensive information on the WRA [War Relocation Authority, essentially the official, hired staff] at Manzanar.” She also suggests exploring Densho, an online archive of primary resources, including 800 oral history interviews. “The Densho archive provides a wealth of complex and fascinating stories from both sides of the fence. But, I don’t think you’ll find any that support the sensational stories in the novel,” she adds.
Fiction though Garden of Stones clearly is, that Littlefield chose a historical event, a real-life location and experiences (including actual staff positions!), surely requires accurate depictions. Narrative liberties in historical fiction might be assumed, but this abusive hypersexualization of imprisoned Japanese American women treads on dangerously misleading territory indeed. Final words? Read at your own risk …